The contours of the American objectives in sending their Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defence James Mattis to New Delhi to meet their counterparts in India, the formidable Sushma Swaraj and Nirmala Sitharaman on September 6 is emerging in the public domain through think tank exercises and newspaper columns. Clearly, the prospects of the emergence of a new symphony in India-US relations, which Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised in 2016 has receded after the advent of the Trump Administration. But the US agenda now seems to seek changes in some fundamental positions in Indian foreign policy and there is every likelihood of the exercise proving to be contentious as India’s strategic autonomy will have to be compromised if India has to retain its strategic partnership with the United States. Further, the benefits that the partnership offers India are far from clear as America has to be first in every relationship under President Donald Trump.
Even at the height of the Cold War, the US had not made India-US relations conditional to India distancing itself from the Soviet Union, though they did not appreciate the concept of non-alignment. But a Pentagon briefing made it clear that while the US understood the legacy of India’s friendship with Russia, the US would expect India to reduce its dependence on Russia as part of India becoming a close defense partner of the US. The new US Countering American Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) will militate against significant engagement with military and intelligence entities of Russia and India’s proposal to purchase the S-400 missile systems will attract its provisions. Any waiver would inevitably demand an assurance that India should pledge to reduce its dependence on Russia. This would be clearly anathema to India against the backdrop of our relations with Russia and the long term cooperation envisaged between the two countries. On this issue alone, it will be hard for India to accept the US position. Ironically, Donald Trump’s love for Russia does not quite square up with the position his Ministers are likely to take in Delhi. If and when President Trump escapes censure on his involvement with Russia, he may well develop a special relationship with its traditional adversary.
Even more complex will be the discussions on China. Ever since January 2015, when Barack Obama and Narendra Modi hit upon an Asia-Pacific strategy, we have been drifting away from our strategy to keep China in good humour, despite the many challenges from across the Himalayas. But the US itself was responsible for India to take a friendlier approach to China because of the total aloofness of the US during the Dokalam crisis and the total unpredictability about the US position on China despite the birth of the Quadrilateral. Wuhan marked a departure from the previous Indian dependence on the US for security in what is now called the Indo-Pacific. The signal at 2+2 is likely to be that India should be a partner of the US in containing China in the Indo-Pacific and also support the trade war that the US has launched against China. The distance from the US that we have sought to improve relations with Russia and China has caused some concern in the US and India will be in the old dilemma of being caught in the crossfire between the two giants. Curiously, the US had not boycotted the Bridge Road Initiative (BRI) summit held in Beijing, but now the US is hinting that the US would support an alternative to BRI in collaboration with India. The effort will be to get India to put all the eggs in the American basket, which India is bound to resist. The kind of investments China is making in BRI will not be forthcoming from the US.
Even more ominous are the signals on Iran. Even the previous US administrations had sought India to do two diametrically opposite things with regard to Iran. They said that India should use its influence in Iran to get Iran to give up its nuclear option. They said in the same breath that India must impose sanctions against Iran and isolate it to fall in line. India had handled the situation quite adroitly so far, but the new aggressive Iran policy demands that India should choose between the US and Iran because any country that does business with Iran will be debarred from doing any business with the US. India has a multitude of interests in Iran as in the US and it can never accept the Hobson’s choice that the US offers. We may reduce imports of oil from Iran, but it cannot abandon Chabahar and other economic arrangements we have built over the years. Any discussion on this issue at the 2+2 meeting will be futile.
The benefits that the US will offer to India during the dialogue are nebulous at best. The higher level of cooperation in defence, technology and trade comes with a price tag. The obligatory foundational agreements offered by the US were resisted by India for long, but the first among them regarding security of information was signed in 2002. The controversial logistics agreement was signed after prolonged discussions in 2016. The third agreement on communications compatibility and security is reportedly ready for signature at the 2+2 meeting, opening the way for installation of sensitive equipment on US platforms that India might acquire in the future. Such a Dhritarashtra’s embrace will only result in greater dependence on the US without any concomitant commitment on strategic support or financial flows.
The 2+2 dialogue is the most important engagement on specific issues with the Trump Administration so far. The prospects for agreement on many of the issues are not bright, even with the best intentions on both sides. The disruptive innovation that Trump deploys in foreign policy will be on display and the Indian side will have to devise its strategy of firmness and flexibility. The best we can expect is greater clarity on the US demands and the likely benefits that may accrue from a new relationship with the US. There was a report that China was seeking astrological advice to deal with the emerging trade war with China. We have no dearth of astrologers and the Indian delegation may do well to consult some of them. Perhaps, they may even advise that it is now India’s turn to get the dialogue postponed!